I believe in integrity. It’s a belief that’s tested in those gut-wrenching moments when conflicting values pull me in opposite directions.
Back in the early 1980s, I was in a training session for mental health workers who were volunteering to provide counseling to cancer patients who had a terminal diagnosis. Each of us was given 16 index cards and asked to write on each the names of people, abilities, things, and values we hold dear. In the course of our imagined cancer, we had to surrender cards or somewhat abruptly have them taken from us.
At the end I had two cards: One read “Integrity” and the other read “My Family.” How could I choose between these two; such a choice was unfair and impossible. My initial thought was that I would give up my integrity, because I love my daughters and would want their comfort at my death. But then, I would realize that dying without integrity might be worse. I drifted back and forth, not wanting to choose. In the end, I uneasily kept the integrity card because I reasoned that if I lost my family, integrity would still be possible; if I lost my integrity, my life would be without value.
I ended up spending five years working with cancer patients and their families, and when the HIV crisis came in the mid 80s I used my training to help gay men face their deaths. They did it with rare courage and integrity.
As I worked with these gay men, I began to be aware that my life was sort of a lie. When I met their caretakers and friends, I realized that I had more in common with them than with my straight male friends. For a while I tried to silence this growing awareness, reminding myself that I loved my wife and children, and that they deserved a husband and father who was respected in the community. If I began to identify as gay and claim my integrity, surely I deserved to lose my family and possibly my job and all of my friends.
As it turned out, integrity was the painful choice I made. I suppose few of us want to hurt people we love. For me, telling my wife and later my daughters that I am gay was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. At age 48, I did not know how to be gay, never mind how to find men to date. So I was alone a lot, and in those lonely days my choice haunted me.
Many times I was tempted to abandon my integrity and go back to the person my family wanted me to be. But returning seemed useless, for if I left my integrity at the door, I would not have much to offer other than my presence.
Today, at age 67, I live totally out as a gay man. To my surprise being gay has turned out to be an opportunity for me to help sexual minorities and their families. For a while I feared I had lost my family. I think they felt betrayed and ashamed of me. But today we’ve found ways to live in our love — each of us true to our own integrity.